Minima Moralia is a collection of aphorisms by the (individualist) Marxist inspired philosophy Theodor Adorno, who was probably most famous (outside philosophy) for strident attacks on the culture industry - especially popular music.

Minima Moralia aphorism 127 states simply that:

Intelligence is a moral category.

I've turned this over a lot, despite not having read very much at all of Minima Moralia.

Here are some idea of what he might mean, and I've bolded what I think it means. Is that viable?

  1. Intelligence is a fiction, unscientific, or relative
  2. You have to work to be intelligent, or intelligence just is hard work
  3. Simply, intelligence is a cousin of empathy - they share DNA (metaphorically) and tend to co-occur
  4. Intelligence is not innate but only ever acquired or learned
  5. Adorno here is making an Aristotelian argument that I'm not able to make sense of without informing myself about Aristotle
  6. Aesthetic intelligence is a moral category, it is one way to be moral
  • 1
    Depends on the context of 'category', but it may also mean that intelligence, like sanity, carves out its own discussion space within an ethics. Those deprived of information, those with less processing power available to them, and those who process the world in unusual ways need to be addressed and handled by ethical systems. This is another version of Kant's use of 'should implies can' -- No ethical system can absolutely require anything that not all people have of all its participants.
    – user9166
    Commented Aug 6, 2015 at 15:31
  • it could be that definitely... i didn't think of it because it's not obvious how intelligence (very often) matters in responsibility for e.g. perfect duties (though i would very likely agree it matters when we talk about moral behaviour and rewards)
    – user6917
    Commented Aug 7, 2015 at 17:19
  • Yeah, I think most readings of Kant get in trouble there. If should implies can, it has to be possible to be a goodly moron. That is, it must be possible to fulfill ones' duties and at the same time be too stupid to understand the Categorical Imperative. Kant makes the point that sentiment cannot motivate duty correctly. But beyond sentiment, your average Downs sufferer has no reliable thought process. So there is a gap here.
    – user9166
    Commented Aug 7, 2015 at 17:44
  • members.efn.org/~dredmond/MM3.html it can be read here, i encourage anyone who can make sense of it to make a post
    – user6917
    Commented Aug 16, 2015 at 20:30

2 Answers 2


First, you have to consider the background of Minima Moralia. It is a benumbed reaction to the Third Reich, especially the immoral acting of so many citizens in just tolerating and playing deference to (or even support) the crimes happening.

The PhD I read this book with in a seminar had the thesis that this is in fact refers to the dulling that happened: If they would have used their intelligence and therefore ability to judge, noone would had been able to act in this immoral manner or even stand the things going on. Therefore, Intelligence is a moral category. You have to make use of your intelligence to act morally, it is reason and therefore judgement.

So, the main statement is that for morality, you have to judge. And this implies the use of your intelligence. That makes it a moral category.

As a sidenote, Adorno knew very well that it hasn't been that easy to publicly condemn what happened. Therefore, the Minima Moralia should be taken by its title as a description of a minimal account for morals.

  • hm seems a a little obvious. what about this? take an artwork, e.g. a serialist composition. it seems we need intelligence, musical knowledge, to judge it as clever, rather than just saying boo or yay, i dislike or like it. and it's the same with empathy, we need to understand others to judge them, and by extension our own behaviour
    – confused
    Commented Nov 16, 2018 at 15:09

This is how I read this passage:

A clear distinction between rationality and sentiment would be very convenient, but it is not real. I agree there is none. So as not to repeat myself I will point at this overly-long argument elsewhere: https://philosophy.stackexchange.com/a/24936/9166

We want to believe that intelligence and morality are either identical (a la Kant, or Utilitarianism where the answer is a formal proof, or a computation, and thus always done most easily by those gifted with quick thinking) or separate (a la Calvinistic religious traditions and their philosophical offspring, or revivals of naturalism that hold morality is a gift of Nature separate from reason, based in the sentiments, including a specific example of a philosopher, Scheler, who considers 'love' the basis of all morals.) But in fact it is not that simple. [Those injected examples, other than Scheler are mine, not his.]

Those who want the two closer together, also want morality to be more universal, which is in fact anti-intellectual, as it does not allow the individual combination of reason and sentiment that come together in an individual to be exercised fully. It indicates that intelligence needs to be shaped a given way, and what does not fit is to be disowned or ignored. He thinks that this is badly exacerbated by globalist notions of intelligence like those of Hegel.

Intelligence is, instead, better seen in terms of its literal synonym, Judgement, which is more obviously an active factor of morality. It channels our sentiments into action, and to the degree we attempt to isolate the two, we fail to inject our 'soul' into our morality. ('Soul' is my gloss, Adorno avoids the concept with the Freudian theory of drives.) We can only contradict this with a certain kind of 'love', in the moment, that dissolves boundaries. We can never do so by recombining reason and sentiment later.

Not personalizing our ethics and using our 'soul' makes us, to a much higher degree than is reasonable or necessary, agents of the social forces that shape our reason from childhood.

But those social forces have enough power, worldwide now that Western logic extends into part of all other cultures, that those who cannot bring these two forces together without help the social institutions will not give them, will disown intelligence, and those who could do so will avoid doing it because playing the game of keeping them separate allows the intelligent to worship their own strength.

It is hard to see this as evil, because evil would involve active negative sentiments, and simply isolating sentiment so that it either escapes logic, or gets devalued, means we can't bring those negative sentiments into action. So we can see the whole enterprise of separation as somehow reducing the level of evil in the world. But only in a quite odd way.

More realistically, we can see that this is nonsense, and the distinction is ultimately destructive, because the isolated parts of the intellect we disown, and the sentiments we devalue will find some way to express themselves. (Again he takes up a Freudian/Kleinian argument to show how this is so, which is overkill in my book because it is just obvious.)

(My general reaction to Adorno is that he constantly says something obvious. It is usually already said by Nietzsche in a way that is entertaining. But he puts it all in a way that is instead just exhausting. It is funny that both he and Nietzsche trashed the popular culture, particularly the music, of their day.)

  • Like Sebastian Rödl form the University of Leipzig said in our colloquium (not a direct quote): The high standpoint of philosophy is, that it does never express something new, but only makes explicit what we all know from the beginning (that is in epistomology). Of course he is saying obvious things. Because everything else would be purely speculative and arrogant ;)
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Oct 16, 2015 at 8:32
  • @PhilipKlöcking But what he is proposing, and what he is attacking cannot both be equally obvious. So this notion has its drawbacks. Given the choice, I will take arrogant originality, thank you very much. Adorno gives us arrogant non-originality, buried in a heavy-handed and hard-to-trudge-through medium.
    – user9166
    Commented Oct 16, 2015 at 19:43

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